added 2/22/2015 by Bob Hulsey
Jeff Luhnow had a shopping list for this winter. He added muscle to the offense. He brought in a new shortstop and third baseman. He beefed up the bullpen.
Yet, as pitchers and catchers report this week in Kissimmee to kick off the 2015 baseball season, starting pitching may be the most important element in the Astros' pursuit of a winning season.
Pitching Coach Brett Strom unleashed two surprises on the American League last year. Lefty Dallas Keuchel was 9-18 with a 5.20 ERA entering last season and began the year as the fifth starter. In a two-month stretch, Keuchel delievered an 8-2 record with a 2.10 ERA, a .212 OBA and a .556 opponents' OPS.
From mid-June through September, he was a more mortal 4-6 with a 3.38 ERA, .275 OBA and a .706 opponents' OPS as he fought a wrist injury and fatigue. Overall, that was still a much-improved 12-9, 2.93 ERA performance that entrenched him as the staff ace.
Collin McHugh was an even bigger surprise. He was 0-8 with an 8.94 ERA in failed trails with the Mets and Rockies when Luhnow plucked him off the scrap heap. After two impressive starts in April turned a temporary call-up into a longer look, McHugh was 2-9 with a 4.05 ERA from May through July. But his OBA was only .221 and, lacking better options, the Astros stuck with him.
McHugh hit his stride in the final two months, posting a dazzling 7-0 with a 1.77 ERA in his final ten starts. His OBA was .216 and his opponents' OPS was a miserly .517. Combined, he was 11-9 with a nifty .273 ERA while striking out over a batter per inning.
So, the question becomes "can Keuchel and McHugh duplicate or even improve on their 2014 performances?"
Both players will get better support from the offense and the bullpen this year, it is hoped, but opponents will not be caught unprepared this year for what both pitchers do best and may have to make adjustments. I would not be surprised to see the W-L record improve while their rate stats fall off a bit.
Veteran Scott Feldman shook off injuries and the death of his father to post an 8-12 season with a 3.74 ERA. Often the victim of circumstance last year, he made quality starts in 19 of his 29 appearances (the "quality start" is the somewhat dubious measurement of lasting at least six innings while allowing three or fewer runs).
Pressed into the ace role on a young staff when, in reality, he's nothing more than a mediocre starter, Feldman should see better pitching matchups this year and a .500 season for him is not unrealistic. Still, the 32-year-old Hawaiian may soon hit the career wall where performance drops off. It might not happen this year but will in the next two or three.
Lefty Brett Oberholtzer, the presumed fourth starter, needs to harness his potential and show the Astros he's ready to make the step up that Keuchel and McHugh have done. After returning from the minors in late June, Obie posted a 3-7 record with a 4.18 ERA in 15 starts.
Fifth-starter candidates Nick Tropeano and Mike Foltynewicz were traded leaving an open competiton between several options. Dan Straily (13-12, 4.54 ERA in three seasons) might seem to have the inside position, particularly if he can recapture his 2013 form. Jake Buchanan (1-3, 4.58 for Houston; 7-5, 3.89 ERA in AAA) will also get a look.
Alex White (5-13, 6.03 with Cleveland and Colorado from 2011-12) has had two years of rehab and is eager to show the skills that made him a former 15th overall draft choice. Veteran Roberto Hernandez, the former Fausto Carmona, was signed as a non-roster invitee. He was 8-11 with a 4.10 ERA last season while pitching for the Phillies and Dodgers.
What many in the organization would like is to see 2014 first overall choice Mark Appel seize the ring and make his big league debut. He'll probably begin the year at AAA Fresno.
Brad Peacock (9-15, 4.90 ERA in two seasons as an Astro) is still around and will begin the year on the disabled list, rehabbing from offseason hip surgery. He could be a factor later in the season. All the fifth starter options discussed are righthanders.
Other than trading for Straily and signing Hernandez, the Astros have done little to bolster the rotation, surmising that it wasn't the problem in 2014. However, if injuries or regression strike Keuchel, McHugh or Oberholtzer, Luhnow may find himself wishing he had given that area a bit more attention.